'Leave It to Beaver' star Jerry Mathers recalls growing up as a Cleaver: 'We were all friends'

Mathers reflects on his alter ego on the anniversaries of "Leave It to Beaver" and "Still the Beaver."

Jerry Mathers played Theodore
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Sixty years after his iconic series ended, Jerry Mathers knows that he's still the Beaver. "I'm used to people seeing me on the street, and saying,'Oh, it's the Beaver!'" the 74-year-old Leave It to Beaver star tells Yahoo Entertainment, laughing. "When I was a kid, I'd always say, 'I'm Jerry Mathers — that's just the name they gave me on the show.'"

Such are the perils — and pleasures — that accompany being one of the most famous TV kids ever. Premiering in 1957, Leave It to Beaver remains the poster child for that era of family-friendly sitcoms, offering an aspirational window into the home of a middle-class suburban nuclear family in the middle of the post-World War II baby boom. By the time it aired its series finale on June 20, 1963, Mathers had played the title character, Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver, for six seasons and some 234 episodes. Twenty years later, he returned to Mayfield as the grown-up Beaver for the TV movie, Still the Beaver, which premiered forty years ago on Mar. 19, 1983 and launched the four-season sequel series, The New Leave It to Beaver.

And Mathers says he'd happily play Grandpa Beaver if an enterprising network or streaming service decided to make The New New Leave It to Beaver. "I'd want to read the script first," he notes. "But as long as it stuck with the same morals and things that we did on the original shows, I'd be very happy to do it. A lot of the cast members [from the sequel series] are still alive, so it'd be fun to go back and see all of those people again."

From l to r: Hugh Beaumont, Barbara Billingsley, Mathers and Tony Dow as the Cleaver family in Leave it to Beaver. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Sadly, the other members of the original Cleaver clan have since passed on. Hugh Beaumont, who played family patriarch Ward Cleaver, died in 1982, the year before Still the Beaver premiered. Mathers's onscreen mother and older brother — Barbara Billingsley and Tony Dow — reprised their roles as June and Wally for the revival movie and series before passing away in 2010 and 2022, respectively. One of the last times all four Cleavers were together was for the wrap party that followed the taping of the show's final episode, "Family Scrapbook," which Beaumont directed.

"It was a huge party on our soundstage," Mathers recalls of that series-ending shindig. "We were on the living room set and all the actors, writers and writers' assistants came. Even people who hadn't been on the show in awhile came in and out. We were all friends, but we knew we were probably not going to see each other that much again. I only realized later on how nice it was to have that many friends."

But at the same time, the Cleavers were also ready to go their separate ways. "We'd loved doing the show for that many years, but I was going into high school and Tony was going into college," Mathers says now. "We'd also done 234 episodes at that point, which meant the network could almost show an episode a day [in re-runs], which they did! We knew that sooner or later people were going to get a little tired of us, so it was time for us to go out and do other things."

Mathers, Billingsley and Dow in Still the Beaver. (Photo: Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The surviving Cleavers — Mathers, Billingsley and Dow — reunited in Still the Beaver. (Photo: Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)

For Mathers, those "other things" included a stint in the California Air National Guard and an extended period as a real estate agent until Still the Beaver brought him back in front of the camera. "I was very good at real estate," he says, chuckling. "People liked having the Beaver as their realtor. I was a million dollar salesperson — but that also wasn't very hard in Los Angeles, because houses here are very expensive."

To commemorate the dual anniversaries of Leave It to Beaver and Still the Beaver, Mathers opened up his own scrapbook to share behind-the-scenes stories about the eternally youthful Beaver Clever, from the souvenir he took from set to the bizarre rumor that he died in Vietnam — a rumor he went on Saturday Night Live to correct.

Making the "Scrapbook"

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The Cleavers at their dinner table in an episode of Leave It to Beaver. (Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

While the majority of Leave It to Beaver's 234 episodes took a week to film, Mathers says that the series finale was shot entirely in one day. That's because "Family Scrapbook" was conceived as a clip show that would look back on the six-season window of time that viewers got to spend in the Cleaver household. In a framing device, all four family members flip through the titular book of photos, with certain pictures setting off flashbacks to older episodes when Wally and the Beaver were younger.

Adding to the personal feel, "Family Scrapbook" was directed by Ward Cleaver himself. Beaumont had moved behind the camera during the show's run and Mathers says it meant a lot to have his TV dad directing their last half-hour together. "Hugh was a very nice man," he recalls. "He had directed several shows by then, and knew all the things we could do, and all the things we couldn't do as a production."

The last episode also answered a question that some viewers had been wondering throughout the run of the series: Why was the Beaver called the Beaver anyway? Turns out it was a family moniker bestowed on the youngest Cleaver due to his older brother's inability to pronounce his given name — instead of Theodor, Wally called him "Tweeter" and that morphed into "Beaver."

Funnily enough, Mathers says that his younger self was never curious about the origins of his alter ego's name. "I never thought about it to be honest with you," he says, laughing. "I had been an actor since I was very, very young, so I was used to having other names on set. Other people would always ask, 'What's with the name?' and there really wasn't an answer until the last episode. The writers just knew they didn't want it to be Theodore and they liked the name Beaver."

A hatful of memories

Mathers in Beaver's signature green baseball cap in an episode of Leave it to Beaver. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
Mathers in Beaver's signature baseball cap in an episode of Leave It to Beaver. (Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

After the party that followed the filming of "Family Scrapbook," Mathers says that the cast and crew departed the Leave It to Beaver soundstage for the last time, declining to linger around and see the set of the Cleaver home dismantled. But the young actor made sure to take a personal memento before he left — and it was something he had brought to set in the first place.

"The only thing I took from set was something that already belonged to me," he remembers. "It was my green hat! People didn't know it was green, because it was a black-and-white show. But on the first day of filming the first episode, my mom gave me this hat that she had found in our closet, and I wore it. The writers and producers liked it, so it suddenly became the hat I wore in a lot of scenes."

It was also the only such hat that Mathers wore through the run of the series — and the only one he still owns today. "They could never find one to match it," he says now. "I had three or four sets of all the other clothes I wore on the show, just in case I spilled something on myself and we had to re-shoot a scene. But they could never find another hat that looked exactly like that one."

Reports of his death were greatly exaggerated

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Mathers during the annual Liberty Day Parade in Bellflower, Calif. in 2007. (Photo: Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

With Leave It to Beaver in the rearview, Mathers spent his teenage years focused on his studies, making only a handful of guest appearances on shows like Batman and Lassie. He also fulfilled a childhood dream by enlisting in the California Air National Guard, following in the footsteps of his dad who had served in the Air Force. "I worked in wing headquarters — I was a colonel's executive secretary," he recalls, adding that no one at HQ dared to call him the Beaver to his face. "I think a lot of people there had never seen Leave it to Beaver! I was also someone you didn't want to mess with, because I worked for a colonel who would say, 'Are you giving him a hard time? You're in big trouble, boy!' So I had a lot of power!"

Mathers served in the National Guard until 1969, by which point the Vietnam War was well underway. In fact, a bizarre rumor circulated that the actor was sent in country and died in the line of duty. To this day, Mathers has no idea where that story came from. "I was a general's aide, so the farthest I ever went was Hawaii, which was really more fun than anything else," he says now. "That rumor was a little strange, but it was also at a time when people didn't want to go into the military. I had joined, and it was something I was very proud to do, because I liked being in the military and being able to serve my country. But it was kind of odd that someone would spread a story like that."

Years later, Mathers went on Saturday Night Live alongside Dow to correct the historical record. Appearing on a Bill Murray-hosted edition of "Weekend Update" in 1980, the Cleaver boys joked about the misunderstanding, which had continued to persist for years after the Vietnam War ended. "People would see me on the street and say, 'You look just like Jerry Mathers, but he's dead!'" Mathers says, chuckling. "And I'd say, 'No, I am Jerry Mathers, and I'm very much alive!'"

Back to Mayfield

From l to r: Mathers, Dow, Ken Osmond and Frank Bank in Still the Beaver. (Photo: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Mathers, from left, with Dow, Ken Osmond and Frank Bank in Still the Beaver. (Photo: Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Nostalgia generally moves in 20 year cycles, so by the early ’80s, TV audiences were starting to think fondly back on the early ’60s. That's when CBS hired Brian Levant, who had written for such hit shows as Happy Days and Mork & Mindy, to develop a Leave It to Beaver reunion with the surviving cast members that became Still the Beaver. Although advertised as a very special TV movie, Mathers says that he, Dow and Billingsley all understood that it would lead to an ongoing series if the ratings proved high enough — which, of course, they did.

"We all knew that it was like a pilot episode," he recalls. "The network wanted to see how many people would be watching it when it aired." (Ultimately, the revival series bypassed CBS to air on the Disney Channel for a season, followed by three additional seasons on TBS.)

Compared to the light stories told in the original show, Still the Beaver covered some surprisingly serious subject matter. For example, the movie opens with the 30-something Beaver being exiled from his home after his wife tells him she wants a divorce. Moving back in with his mother, he finds a new job with his late father's former co-worker, Fred Rutherford. Meanwhile, Wally and his wife are struggling to start their own family amidst fertility troubles.

"They wanted to show us as more mature people than we were as children," Mathers says of Still the Beaver's more dramatic tone. "A lot of people were having problems like that in their own lives, so the writers thought they'd be interested in watching how we got out of them in the show." But the actor had no qualms about playing that kind of material. "If you're an actor, you just go in and read the script," he says. "I already had the character pretty well done — it wasn't hard to do."

The one Corey

Corey Feldman, Mathers and John Snee in Still the Beaver. (Photo: Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Corey Feldman, Mathers and John Snee in Still the Beaver. (Photo: Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)

After six seasons of being raised by his TV dad on Leave It to Beaver, Mathers got to be a TV dad on Still the Beaver — the Beaver and his soon-to-be ex-wife have two young boys, Corey and Oliver. And Corey is played by none other than ’80s child star Corey Feldman. "He was very nice," the actor says of the then-11-year-old actor. "We were all good friends." (Feldman notably didn't reprise the role on the subsequent series: Instead, Kipp Marcus took over and the character's name was changed to Ward "Kip" Cleaver in honor of Beaumont.)

Even though Corey and Oliver aren't central characters in Still the Beaver, Mathers was pleased that the movie sought to preserve what he always prized about Leave It to Beaver — getting inside the mind of a child. "A lot of shows don't show what kids are really thinking," he explains. "Our show was a really good look at what they do think and how differently they think from adults. Obviously, a lot of kids didn't have a life like Leave it to Beaver, but a vast majority had bad things happen to them at school or other things that were very real to kids watching the show."

Leave It to Beaver is streaming on Peacock